Subscription Model in Publishing: Not Like Netflix/Spotify

This week, we talked about the Medium’s subscription model during the class. In The rationalization of publishing, Medium’s founder Evan Williams believed that since publishing could not be supported by advertisements alone currently, a subscription model will be the best solution. He compared this model to Netflix/Spotify and argued that:

  1. People who care about understanding themselves and the world will pay for information
  2. People who care about reading will pay for texts as they pay for videos and audios
  3. People will pay for high-quality content rather than reading free but poor-quality content online

I agreed with his arguments. However, I do not think that TV/music is an appropriate analogy for publishing. In my opinion, reading has a lot of differences from watching TV or listening to music. Therefore, publishers should be careful when applying the subscription model.

First, the market for publishers tends to be smaller than TV or music producers. There are fewer people who read than who watch TV or listen to music.

According to the Pew Research, “Overall, Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read four books in the past 12 months”. Let us assume they spend 10 hours on each book (it is hard to assume the average because depending on the genre and page number, it will take a different length of time to finish a book), then an average American spends about 120 hours on reading in a year and a typical American only spends 40 hours on reading in a year.

Let us look at the data for Netflix. By the end of 2017, Netflix had 117.58 million subscribers. It also claimed that in average, its users watched 140 million hours of content on a day. According to the numbers, the averages time for one subscriber to spend on Netflix on one day is a little over 50 minutes.

Then what about the time that people spend on digital reading?

In 2017, Medium only had 60 million monthly readers (not exactly subscribers) and in total, these users spent 4.5 million hours reading on Medium in per month. This means that each reader only spends 4.5 mins on Medium per month.

A big difference, huh?

The subscription model works for Netflix or Spotify because a huge number of consumers watches TV or listens to music now. For a keen online reader, paying a subscription fee to get the unlimited access to good quality articles is a great deal but how many keen online readers are there? For people who only read four books a year, unlimited access to books is not very appealing. However, they might be one of the one-time book buyers out there in the market which the subscription model does not work for.

Another significant difference between reading and the other two media is that there are better alternatives for readers rather than subscribing to a certain platform. If I quit Netflix or Amazon Prime today, I do not know where to find a better solution. I could go to a movie theatre which only provides me with a few options, or I could pay for a cable which would be very troublesome and expensive to get considering I don’t even own a nice TV now. Without the subscription model, I can still read a printed book, an ebook or listen to an audiobook, either bought by myself or borrowed from libraries or friends.

I am not saying that subscription model would not work for publishers. Except Medium, there are also subscription services for Ebooks such as Kindle Unlimited, Oyster or Scribd. In the article Subscription Services for E-Books, the author pointed out that the sales of physical books are “fairly stable” and he concluded that “the reading public doesn’t get subscription e-book services — or at least doesn’t get them yet”. However, I think the readers did not get the subscription model because the physical books (or the experience of reading a physical book) are still in need.

Overall, I think the subscription model will work for publishers, but only to a certain extent. In the publishing world, the subscription model will not be as dominant as it in other fields such as TV or music.

Ah, Internet writing. What does one call thee?

What does it mean “to publish”? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as when one makes information available to the public. In A Writing Revolution Seed Magazine written by Denis Pelli and Charles Bigelow at Seed Magazine, the two make claims around what publishing means today. Yes, what they consider as contemporary publishing is supported with graphs and statistics, conveying that the Internet is making it even easier for anyone to essentially publish (make things public); however, I’m not so entirely on board that what they are describing is called “publishing”.

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Reading Response: Which Kind of Innovation?

Baldur Bjarnason’s article “Which Kind of Innovation?” gave a lot of credit to ebooks, in my opinion. But I think he was on the right track when he said that ebooks weren’t disruptive innovations. The problem I find within the publishing industry is that they need to be disruptive to the entirety of the industry if they want to get adopted with any sort of staying power.

Print books have been improved upon for more than 500 years. So in a way, it makes sense for ebooks to be modelled after the print formula. However, how can ebooks compete with paperback books—physical takeaways—when their prices differ by only $0.00 to $5.00? Ebooks must offer something more substantial and satisfying than print books if the industry wants to have them adopted by a wide audience. It is almost comical when Bjarnason comments, “Amazon’s Kindle format remains for all intents and purposes a 1990s technology.” In reality, ebooks are a digital facsimile of a book, for the most part. They are laid out similarly and I would argue that the Kindle format is a 1500s technology. But Bjarnason seems to be on to that as well as he says “[Fixed layout ebooks] contain… no innovative features to speak of, they are merely an accumulation of complex print-like cruft to aid the transition of illustrated or designed print books into digital.”

Projects such as The Pickle Index, where there is a web 2.0 storytelling integration that occurs simultaneously in story-time and in real-time over ten days, “revealing the narrative through the various features of the app: popular vinegar-based recipes, daily news updates, dynamic maps, and Q&A” is a much more interesting way to grab readers to have them read digitally. In fact, it is as this point that I would actually refer to digital reading as an “innovation.” When Bjarnason calls ebooks a “sustaining innovation,” as in the idea that they sustain what already exists in the publishing world, I think he is using an oxymoron. If they are sustaining a status quo, they are not creating innovation at all.

I think a major switch in the thinking around creating ebooks needs to be changed. They cannot just be an afterthought, a digital book. There has to be something altogether different about them, a reason for people to choose them over print books. But when prices are comparable, there is no physical takeaway, and print books are better designed than ebooks, there is no real point to adopt them.

Readk.it to the rescue—throwing publishers an ebook buoy

On November 19, 2007, Jeff Bezos and his behemoth of an online bookstore launched the first generation Amazon Kindle in the United States and ultimately announced the future of electronic readers . Despite the fact that other ebook readers—Rocket eBook Reader, Gemstar, Everybook, SoftBook, Librius Millennium Reader, Sony Reader—had previously flopped (Pogue), the Kindle sold out within hours and remained out of stock for several months. The device’s popularity, success, and criticisms inspired the release of subsequent ereaders—such as the second generation Kindle, the Kindle Deluxe (DX) and the Barnes & Noble Nook—in 2009, and, in 2010, Apple raised the stakes with the introduction of the iPad and its iBooks reading app (“E-book”).

As successful as these ereaders and their respective companies have been, from the first moment of the 2007 Kindle launch until the present, book publishers have been struggling to play a game of ‘catch up’ with these titan tech companies. They have been producing ebooks as quickly as possible—adhering to the technology and guidelines dictated to them—and trying as they might to stay afloat in an unfamiliar ocean, constantly inundated with waves of new ebook formats, ereading devices, and public demands. All of which have made it difficult for publishers to create ebooks that are anything more than just digital copies of their print books, something to fill a gap in the marketplace. But with the launch of Readk.it, a digital reading system that requires no allegiance to one specific ereader or company, publishers might actually have a fighting chance to reclaim ebooks as their own.

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Bricks vs. Clicks: How Publishers Are Affected by the Loss of Traditional Booksellers

One of the most prominent concerns in publishing today is the competition between printed books and ebooks. However, the means through which books are sold, rather than the general containers for books, is the more pertinent issue for the publishing industry (Shatzkin, 2014). With the loss of Borders and other brick-and-mortar bookstores, more and more book sales are being made online, helped in part by ebook sales (Pressman, 2014). While that may not initially sound like a bad thing for publishers, the online retail environment does not provide a level playing field. In fact, it introduces more obstacles. Continue reading “Bricks vs. Clicks: How Publishers Are Affected by the Loss of Traditional Booksellers”

Redefining the Publisher: Why We Need Our Gatekeepers

What is a publisher? There are many definitions, both online and off, specific to music, books, other media, and more generally speaking. In the Oxford English Dictionary a publisher is defined as, “a person who makes something generally known; a person who declares or proclaims something publicly”, a definition with usage from 1453 through 1995. This is also a definition that is particularly pertinent to this discussion. More on that shortly, for there are also more nuanced definitions. Definitions that exist in a more ephemeral sense and that understand the term “publisher” in broader terms, connected to a reputation, whether like Harlequin or Del Rey as publishers of certain types of work, or like Penguin & Random House as big presses that publish and republish countless texts, or like small presses whose publics define them in a much more immediate way. In each case, the sense of “publisher” is one that involves an awareness of what to expect as a reader and has, therefore, an awareness of some kind of quality control. The OED definition of publisher above is one that does a wonderful job reflecting the commonly held notion of the digital age, that “everyone’s a publisher” in today’s networked landscape. However, it is lacking in the nuances and connotations that, I think make the need for a publisher even more important to the publics of the current landscape than ever before, a landscape that not only inhibits but seems to reject the very idea of the publisher. Take for example, Clay Shirky, who argues that, “Publishing is not evolving” and that, “Publishing is going away….[that] There’s a button that says ‘publish,’ and when you press it, it’s done.”
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Grumpy Cat: The Modern Achilles

Or,

How Memes are Actually Classical Tradition and How Publishers Are Killing Them Regardless

 

N.B. In the context of this essay, ‘meme’ refers specifically to internet memes and oral tradition refers specifically to that of the Ancient Greeks.

How could an unhappy looking cat be comparable to the greatest Greek hero? Achilles and Grumpy Cat are much more similar than they first appear. They come from traditions, Ancient Greek oral tradition and internet memes respectively, that are mirror images of each other.  Continue reading “Grumpy Cat: The Modern Achilles”